Voter guide: Ryan Dorsey, City Council (3), Baltimore City

Ryan Dorsey

Democratic candidate for Baltimore City Council D3

Age 38

Residence Mayfield, Baltimore City

Occupation City Council Member

Education Bachelors of Music, Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University

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Previous political experience

Elected to City Council in 2016

Why are you running for office?

When I ran in 2015, it was out of a conviction that the City Council had more power to make change than it was using. During that campaign I learned a lot from residents in my district about what they cared about, what they thought the City Council should be doing, and I had a lot of conversations about what the City Council actually had the power to do.

After nearly four years on the Council, I’ve become a student of city government and of the legislative power that the City Council holds. I’ve made my share of mistakes and earned my share of wins in a first term. In a second term, I’d like to go to work again for the 3rd District and the City of Baltimore.

In a second term I’d like to continue delivering the immediate results that make a short term difference: a sidewalk, street light, or water main repaired; I’d like to continue delivering legislation that modernizes our code, and delivers on low-hanging fruit.

But I’ll also double-down on the idea that the City Council can use its power to deliver change that will attack the root causes of inequality and suffering in our City, by changing the fundamental structures that ensure their existence.


What are the most pressing issues in your district, and how would you address them?

In my district, the issues that I hear the most about include community public safety, business vacancy, and the need for new jobs, development, and public investment.

Every day my office works with City agencies to address these issues, and works with communities and stakeholders to identify solutions and suggest new approaches. Together, we’ve reduced business vacancy, brought development and investment to the 3rd District, and kept the 3rd District comparatively safe during a troubling time for Baltimore.

But to really shift the tide on the larger challenges takes a clear policy agenda that tackles the challenges of structural racism, unaccountable government, and a changing world.

This is why I voted for the $15 minimum wage, passed the Baltimore HOME Act, passed Complete Streets, and it’s why I drafted a ballot question creating an independent Office of the Inspector General and followed that effort up with whistleblower protections, and an overhaul of financial disclosure laws.

It’s why in my second term I’ll propose creating a local housing voucher program, and propose responsible banking requirements, ensuring that the banks that hold our City’s money are aiding investment in our communities, for home ownership and minority and women-owned businesses development.

It’s why I’ll keep pressing BPD to civilianize faster, and continue to advocate for more emphasis on community-based violence interruption, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and job training and access to opportunity as short-term solutions to violent crime.

I’ll keep working with all stakeholders to bring new development, investment, and businesses to all corners of the 3rd District.


How do you assess the current police commissioner’s performance and the department’s approach to fighting violent crime, specifically murder?

Commissioner Harrison has laid out a vision for fighting violent crime that is in line with Baltimore’s policing consent decree, best practices, and is bolstered by his own experience and success in New Orleans reforming a troubled police department there. So far, he is making a good faith effort to implement this plan, in the face of significant resistance from the FOP and from opponents of Baltimore’s federal consent decree.

In my view, the crime rate is always affected by more factors than any police commissioner or political leader can control, but where crime has decreased, four factors are often present: one, use of data to deploy police resources more effectively and target repeat violent offenders; two, police-community trust; three, partnership between all relevant stakeholders; and four, economic opportunity.

Three factors are critical right now: first, Baltimore must ramp up civilianization. This is the easiest way to address the need for more patrol officers and the overreliance on police overtime, which is not only expensive, but leads to fatigue and low morale among patrol officers. Second, we should expand community-based violence intervention programs. In the near term, these programs can help stop the bleeding in communities while the difficult work of reforming BPD and expanding economic opportunity unfolds.

It’s also essential to recognize the role of addiction and mental health in Baltimore’s current crime wave. Expanding access to addiction and mental health treatment and resources of all kinds is necessary to see an immediate reduction in violence.


How would you address the issue of squeegee kids in the city’s intersections?

We have a crisis of opportunity in our City. So-called “squeegee kids” have been with us for many years, and the reason is constant: because our youth and young adults don’t have access to opportunity, and if their families similarly lack that access, they may be shouldering economic burdens that no young person should have to shoulder.

It’s important that we don’t come to the squeegee debate with the wrong framing. The attempt of squeegee workers to use public space for economic advancement should not be surprising or shocking. While violence is never acceptable, if we are being honest, the reports of damage to property or to persons by squeegee workers are often apocryphal, or entail a conflict initiated by the driver.

That is not to say that the existence of squeegee workers is to be accepted without action. The work that must be done is the labor-intensive, painstaking work of reaching out to these individuals who are at the economic margins, and to offer them the resources they need to make a different choice. If we want to see fewer squeegee workers on the streets, this is what should be done.


What strategies would you pursue to reduce drug addiction and associated ills, such as overdose deaths and crime?

Drug addiction is a disease and a public health emergency, and it must be dealt with accordingly. The best way to reduce the ills associated with addiction is ensure people suffering from it can get access to treatment. Treatment is the key to preventing overdose deaths, and stopping the cycle of crime that may be fueled by addiction.

Treatment must be made freely available in a variety of ways to meet the different individual needs of persons struggling with addiction. We must find a way to reduce the stigma associated with treatment, and see people struggling with addiction as people with a better future ahead of them.

In an ideal world, drug use would be fully decriminalized, with the instrumentalities of the state fully focused only on treatment, recovery, and providing opportunity for people both before and after they recover. In an ideal world, all of these services could be offered in a coordinated fashion by the public sector, with no profit motive, and excellent communication with all stakeholders.

We are not yet living in that world, but if we follow the recommendations of public health experts and work in coalitions that include all affected stakeholders, we can treat drug addiction in a way that reduces harm and heals lives, families, and communities.


How do you propose Baltimore pay for its expected share of the Kirwan education commission reforms?

Funding for Kirwan will come in large and small sums from a number of places, revenues both old and new. It cannot be achieved by applying a uniform percentage cut across all City agencies. The watchword is equity; meaning both cuts and new revenues must impact city residents in an equitable way.

Our police budget is higher per capita than any other major city, with no corresponding public safety benefit. It is the clearest place in the City budget where significant funding can be found, simply by changing the way the department is managed and operated. The City should explore congestion pricing and other means of monetizing private vehicle access to downtown, similar to what London has done and what New York and D.C. are exploring. This can be done in an equitable, income-based way.

Many city fees that are currently set by code should be indexed to inflation. The annual license fee for commercial parking facilities, for example, is roughly one third what it would be, had the rate from the 1950’s been updated appropriately.

We should not discount the impact of policy and investments that make Baltimore more equitable, affordable, and liveable. These will grow the tax base and increase revenue.

These include more investment in community commercial corridors, transit-oriented development, greater density along arterial corridors, and more housing-type diversity citywide. These also include removal of automobile infrastructure that depresses surrounding property values, like the JFX and the Highway to Nowhere.


What are the overlooked opportunities for economic development and job creation in Baltimore, and how will you encourage their implementation?

Baltimore lost a generational economic development opportunity when the Red Line was cancelled, but the replacement of the B&P tunnel, most recently projected to cost $4.5 billion, mostly federal funds, would potentially create even more jobs and economic impact.

Should B&P go forward, it would be important to fully leverage that opportunity in the same way that the City once planned to do with the Red Line.

The best economic development strategy, however, isn’t tied to megaprojects or big gambles like hotels, casinos, or stadiums. Rather, it comes when the City has good fundamentals, providing an environment where anyone can expect to start and grow a successful business. These include encouraging housing-type diversity, mixed-use development, and increased density citywide through changes to the zoning code, and supporting those changes with investments in complete streets improvements. When residents can use transit, walking, and biking to access destinations, they have more disposable income to spend in the local economy, and evidence from around the country shows that that’s exactly what happens.

The City should also work with local financial institutions and find ways to open up funding for home buying and business development, which could unlock a lot of economic growth and wealth created by and for existing city residents.


Is the current structure of the City Council, and the balance of power between the mayor and council members, appropriate, and why or why not? If you would seek to change it, what would your model look like?

Baltimore politicos often discuss the benefits and drawbacks of Baltimore’s notorious “strong mayor” system of government. My view is that changes must be made to rebalance some power away from the Mayor so that the Council — and by extension the people of Baltimore — have more of a say in the affairs of the City.

One way to do this is by transitioning to a Council Speaker model. Currently, the Council President, a single, at-large official, holds most of the Council’s power, outweighing the collective power of the other 14 Councilmembers. Under this arrangement, the membership of the City Council might completely turn over, but if the Council President is the same, there may be little impact in terms of the decisions the Council collectively makes.

Under a Council Speaker arrangement, the significant powers of the Council President would be given not to a single elected official, but to the collective institution of the City Council. This would allow the City Council to function as a more robust legislative body with significant power to negotiate with the Mayor and shape policy. The Council would elect a Speaker to be its presiding officer, which is how most legislatures function.

Other changes are necessary as well. The Council should have at least some power to amend the budget without the threat of a mayoral veto that effectively cannot be overcome. This would give the Council real power to directly make policy affecting outcomes like public safety and economic development.


What are the most important issues the council has dealt with in the last four years? Name several smart decisions and several not-so-smart choices members have made.

The Council placed a number of charter amendments on the ballot in 2018, all of which were approved by voters. This brought about positive changes for democracy and accountability, like the creation of an independent and empowered Office of the Inspector General, and the Fair Elections Fund, but also weakened the independence of the Executive Director of the Ethics Board. The Council has more recently, however, come to atone, passing a bill reorganizing Ethics to come under the OIG. The Council has passed additional accountability measures, including whistleblower protections and financial disclosures reforms.

The Council undertook a number of big steps on key issues of livability, around housing, transportation, and jobs, passing a national award-winning Complete Streets ordinance, and a tax increase on large real estate transactions to fund affordable housing. But it failed to even attempt to override Mayor Pugh’s veto of the $15/hour minimum wage.

The Council has embraced a number of tax breaks whose benefits are wasteful, inequitable and unsupported by data, including ones for public safety officers and newly constructed dwelling units. On the other hand, the Council recently passed a property tax credit for the lowest-paid 25% of City employees, and overcame decades of resistance to pass the HOME Act, both of which will increase housing opportunity.


What weaknesses do you see in the delivery of city services? What can be done to improve response time and resident satisfaction?

Across the board, City agencies struggle to deliver services adequately and on time. This is due to a wide range of causes: staff using outdated technology, following inadequate processes, significant staffing and resource shortages, and good old fashioned bad leadership and management.

In some cases, with strong leadership and enough time, these processes can be fixed and city employees trained in new procedures that deliver better results. Right now, this is happening at Baltimore City DOT, thanks to new leadership and an agency-wide effort to successfully implement my Complete Streets legislation and fully embrace its spirit.

In other cases, change might come as result of an investigation by the Office of the Inspector General. When I proposed an independent OIG in 2018, it was because I learned that past mayors had simply fired any IG who caused too many problems for their agencies.

As a baseline, Councilmembers play their role as a help desk. But no resident should have to go through their City Councilmember simply to get city government to deliver services adequately. Responsive bureaucrats are convenient for those whose calls they answer, but for most of Baltimore’s 600,000 residents, they are a poor substitute for effective systems and management.

It’s my goal to continue to turn the insights I learn into policy, in order to make long-term changes that will have lasting impact.

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